The muted pantsuits, understated pearls, blazers, skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors of Vice President Kamala Harris telegraph a distinct message: Her fashion is designed to play a sturdy, supporting role in her career and public life. Like an efficient Senate page, or a cunning campaign strategist, the new veep’s duds are meant to blend into the background, not become the main story.
Things don’t always work out that way, but that’s not for lack of trying. Her seemingly uncalculated fashion is anything but. It is the result of a collaboration with the Hollywood stylist Karla Welch, who is especially known for the perfectly imperfect off-duty looks she crafts for her clients, a motley crew that includes Oprah Winfrey, Justin Bieber, and even Anita Hill.
Harris and Welch’s professional partnership is something of a secret—kinda open, kinda not. And neither camp returned emails requesting confirmation. But what of the intrigue around the wardrobe of the first woman elected to the second-highest office in the land? Does sartorial self-expression go hand-in-hand with self-empowerment? How much analysis and ink should be spilled over Converse sneakers and pantsuits? Should this Vice President’s clothes even be up for discussion, given the historic nature of her ascent, and the barriers she might break yet for other women in power?
Harris herself has answered those questions through her wardrobe choices for her most symbolic public appearances so far. Her fashion before may have looked relevant yet unremarkable, but it was rich with meaning during inauguration week: the clothes on her back were all conceived by designers of color, including Sergio Hudson, Prabal Gurung, Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean-Raymond and Christopher John Rogers, whose brilliant purple coat and dress was accessorized with pearls by Puerto Rican designer Wilfredo Rosado.
The agita over the vice president’s attire is partly due to “a tangle of conflicting feelings,” says Robin Givhan, the one and only journalist to receive a Pulitzer Prize for fashion criticism, who is now the Washington Post’s senior critic-at-large, chronicling politics, race and the arts. On one hand, Harris’s clothes are straightforward and professional, especially while she was on the campaign trail. “She looks like she could be walking into any major law firm, any Fortune 500 company,” says Givhan. “But I think there’s also this sort of inability to not discuss her clothes because of the historical nature of her position.”
Fashion is a way for people to get a little slice of Harris’s life and symbolism for themselves. It’s aspirational fashion in a new way. “I also just sort of worry to some degree that we are muddling the line between Vice President and First Lady,” says Givhan.
That may be because until recently there were few other prominent women at the White House except for first ladies. It wasn’t until 1933 that a woman, Frances Perkins, even served as a cabinet member. “Women have largely been seen as a decorative and social part of our government,” says Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian and director of history, research and scholarship who recently curated “Every Eye is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States.”
First Ladies have worked with stylists in the past. Meredith Koop, a former shop girl at Chicago’s influential, avant boutique Ikram, is responsible for Michelle Obama’s fashion evolution. Female elected officials have employed image consultants on the campaign trail and are known to work with personal shoppers at stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, where Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are clients. Some of them also have personal connections to fashion houses, as Clinton did with Oscar de la Renta. But going for a Hollywood power player is new.
Harris is not a First Lady, but one of so many firsts—first woman, first woman of color, first woman of South Asian descent, first daughter of immigrants to hold the office of vice president. She won’t be reduced to her appearance, but she also knows she won’t be exempt from scrutiny. Consider the creamy Carolina Herrera pantsuit and white silk pussy bow blouse, a nod to the suffragist movement, that she wore for her and President Joe Biden’s victory speech in November, which was dissected across media high and low, far and wide, though a PR representative for the house of Herrera, declined to comment on it. There’s already a (rather useful) website, WhatKamalaWore.com, by the journalist Susan E. Kelley, who also curates similar sites about Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton.
The difference, of course, is that Harris is not a royal or a celebrity, and her sartorial decisions are fraught with political risk. Former President Barack Obama once triggered a media firestorm for wearing a tan suit at a briefing room appearance. And that was considered a more innocent time. What of today’s extremely polarized climate?
It follows then, that, Harris would want to minimize risk by working with a stylist favored for making her clients feel most like themselves, so that our focus stays strictly on her work and political mettle. It tells us, too, that she’s a savvy architect of her public image. Welch works with women who are famous for their idiosyncratic character choices and personality and dresses them in serious fashion that makes them look like fearless stars not awkward paper dolls. Game meets game and usually everyone wins.
Welch’s personal brand, meanwhile, marries fashion and social activism, and her Instagram feed might be peppered with shots of Kristen Wiig in a ruffled red Valentino gown and instructions on how to vote in Georgia’s runoff Senate election. In October, Welch launched the Period Company, a line of affordable, sustainable underwear that seeks to reframe the way women and girls view menstruation. In choosing her as a stylist, the optics for Harris look good in many ways. Many ways but one.
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The fact that Welch is white has rankled some in the Black fashion community. “I think it’s really problematic that she doesn’t work with a Black team,” says one Black stylist who wished to remain anonymous to speak candidly. “With all the conversation about Black women carrying this election, the hope would be that she had a Black stylist.” On the campaign trail Harris didn’t wear many, if any, Black designers, but she course corrected during this past inauguration week, choosing to wear a classically cut camel coat by Jean-Raymond for Pyer Moss during a vigil for the victims of the pandemic; John Rogers’s brilliantly purple dress and coat for the inauguration’s day events; and for the evening, a black cocktail dress with a floor length tuxedo overcoat by Hudson, who also dressed Michelle Obama for the day ceremony. Is it fair to add Black fashion advocate to the immense pressure and duties that are already heaped on Harris’ shoulders?
“I don’t think she needs to make a stand verbally, but I do think there are going to be expectations of her in her position as a woman,” says Peju Famojure, a stylist and fashion consultant who has styled Solange Knowles and consulted with Beyoncé. “There are always expectations tied into women’s fashion choices. People would be happy to see her support brands that are made in America, but also Black-owned brands, giving them representation, not only from a visual standpoint, but also helping to drive monetary success.”
The vice president has her work cut out for her in myriad ways beyond style, which, after all, is just one of many weapons in her political arsenal. Gabriela Hearst, who designed First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s acclaimed floral motif ivory coat on the night of the inauguration and is one of her go-to designers, remembers when Harris won her Senate seat in 2016. “It was the first time I heard her speak,” says Hearst. “It was so moving and it gave me hope.”
The designer, recently named creative director of the French house Chloé, has dressed one fictional veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and she sees the real deal wearing clothes that reflect her strength of character: “Suits. A silk blouse for sure. Sharp blazer and pants. But not too sharp. Not too custom made. I don’t think she has too much time for that.”
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